Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is one of those classic science fiction novels that I’ve been meaning to read for ages but for one reason or another never quite got around to. Recently, though, the novel seems to be popping up wherever I turn: Viz Media’s speculative fiction imprint Haikasoru takes its name from the title; it was mentioned multiple times in the tenth volume of Mechademia which I read not too long ago; and in 2015 it was adapted as a live-action television series. Originally published in 1962, The Man in the High Castle can be counted as among the first major works of fiction written in English to examine an alternate history in which Germany and Japan emerged victorious from the Second World War, a historical turning point which has since become one of the most popular for the subgenre to explore. Winning the Hugo Award for best novel in 1963, The Man in the High Castle is also regarded as one of Dick’s most well-known and highly-acclaimed works. The novel has been re-published around the world numerous times with the most recent US edition scheduled to be released in 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
After being defeated, the United States of America was divided into three political entities at the end of World War II. The Pacific States of America is overseen by Japan and the Eastern United States is occupied by Germany while the central third of the country, the Rocky Mountain States, remains an independent buffer zone. Less than two decades have passed since the end of the war. Nazi Germany, having become a major power, continues to dominate and conquer the rest of the world and has even extended its reach to space. However, internal power struggles threaten to throw the precariously-balanced international political landscape into war and turmoil once again. In the meantime, Americans have had to either learn to adapt to their occupiers’ whims or to flee their homeland. The Japanese rule is fairly benign, especially when compared to that of the Germans, but it is still grating and demeaning for the Americans who are slowly losing their national identity along with the freedoms and respect that they once enjoyed in the past.
The alternate history that Dick envisions in The Man in the High Castle is honestly terrifying and horrifying. Under the global influence of a fascist, totalitarian regime, extreme racism and prejudice is rampant and genocide isn’t a thing of the past but of the present and future. People live in a world in which insidious fear, hatred, anger, and uncertainty have come to dominate. The Man in the High Castle follows several different and fairly ordinary characters from a variety of backgrounds who are all ultimately connected to one another, either directly or tangentially: an antiques dealer making his living selling Americana to Japanese clients, an American craftsman and jewelry maker who must hide his Jewish identity and heritage, a Japanese trade official stationed in what was once California, an American woman who teaches judo in the Rocky Mountain States, and a Nazi defector trying to prevent impending atrocities from becoming a reality. By the end of the novel, both together and separately, they have all taken a stand against the status quo and have made a difference, however small, in the world around them.
In addition to being a work of alternate history itself, there is a novel within The Man in the High Castle—The Grasshopper Lies Heavy—which explores yet another potential reality. That novel plays a pivotal role as does the Chinese classic the I Ching which many of the characters consult as an oracle or use to make major decisions and which Dick himself used to guide the story and plot of The Man in the High Castle. The writing style of The Man in the High Castle did take some time for me to get used to. Much of the novel consists of the characters’ internal monologues and thought processes, resulting in a work that frequently feels like fragmented stream-of-consciousness. Parts of the novel are also written in deliberately stilted English which, while clever and effective (and while I can understand and appreciate Dick’s intentions), doesn’t necessarily always make for the most pleasant reading experience. However, the underlying ideas and themes behind The Man in the High Castle are tremendous. Ultimately, The Man in the High Castle is a fascinating and chilling read, and a novel that is remarkably relevant and thought-provoking even today.